Coppa seemed all wrong.
It's an Italian tapas restaurant in Boston's South End. That's a neighborhood I avoided when I had lived there in the 90s.
They didn't have any reservations available. My wife and I didn't like that uncertainty. We had other things we wanted to do that night and didn't want to get stuck waiting for an hour.
It was tiny. I've been in a lot of tiny places in Boston. Tiny usually equals cramped, crowded, and unpleasant.
Coppa turned out to be perfect.
They had amazing food, a wonderfully cozy atmosphere, and great service. The restaurant was crowded, but they found a comfortable spot for us at a small bar looking out the window.
We never would have gone there if we had relied on Yelp. Good thing we asked an expert instead. When it comes to getting great service experiences, a knowledgeable person is still the go-to option.
The Limits of Yelp and AI
Yelp makes recommendations based on two things: algorithmically-culled recommendations of an anonymous crowd and the searcher's ability to enter appropriate search criteria.
It generally does a good job.
Just last week, I was traveling and needed to find a place to get a haircut. Yelp was able to narrow down my search to a few highly rated places that were all within walking distance of my hotel. A quick scan of the reviews helped me pick a winner. It worked out well.
But, there are a few problems with how Yelp delivers its recommendations.
First, how do I know that the anonymous crowd shares my interests and tastes? Coppa has over 500 Yelp reviews and a strong four star rating, but I really don't know who is rating them.
There's been plenty of times when the crowd has absolutely loved something that I just couldn't get into. For example, I've tried many times to love The Godfather movies and still don't like them.
The second problem with Yelp is the user. It's limited by whatever search criteria you use. So, if you decide to exclude the South End, then Yelp won't recommend anything in that neighborhood. That's why Coppa didn't appear in my Yelp search.
The problem, of course, is customers often don't know exactly what they want. Or, they think they do, only to be delighted later on by an option that didn't fit their criteria at all.
I experienced a similar challenge when I tried to use IBM Watson to pick out a jacket. Watson was limited by the search criteria I thought matched my needs. I received better service from an in-store sales associate who could interpret my criteria and think laterally to suggest options I hadn't considered.
The Power of Experts
My friend, Patrick Maguire, had suggested Coppa.
Patrick knows a lot about restaurants in Boston. He writes the popular I'm Your Server, Not Your Servant blog about hospitality service. He also consults with Boston-area restaurants on PR, promotions, and hospitality. I definitely consider him an expert.
I had told him my wife, Sally, and I were looking for a place for dinner. He asked a few thoughtful questions that led to his recommendation.
Patrick used his extensive knowledge of area restaurants to make his suggestion. He used his perceptiveness to interpret my criteria and understand what was truly important to us. And, he used his relationship with me to effectively persuade me that things I saw as obstacles (South End, no reservations, etc.) weren't really obstacles at all.
Yelp couldn't do that.
The other thing that Yelp couldn't do is validate my choice. Getting some insider information makes me feel good. Heck, look at the title of my blog and you can tell this is something I obviously value.
I wrote a little about connecting with experts in this blog post about Do-It-Yourself Learning.
Chances are, you know a lot of people who are an expert in one thing or another. The thing I've learned is you have to approach them directly.
So, if I had made a general post on Facebook asking for restaurant recommendations, I might have gotten several suggestions from well-meaning friends who may or may not have been on-target. If I was lucky, Patrick would have seen my post, but there's a good chance he wouldn't have.
The direct approach worked much better. I went to him because he's an expert in that area.
This means you have to think about who's in your circle that knows something about what you know. Check up on your friends' profiles on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks if you can't remember who knows what.
Employees are often experts too.
They've received specialized training. They spend a lot of time answering questions and familiarizing themselves with their company's products and services. And, I can tell you that most customer service employees love getting the chance to share their knowledge.
This means your restaurant server knows the inside scoop on how menu items really taste. A retail employees knows the ins and outs of their products.
As I noted in a recent blog post, self-help tools like Yelp are gaining in popularity, but employees (and your friends) still hold the edge when it comes to nuanced or complex requests.